In Memoriam: Greg Dale Bear
Alas, the forge lies cold
On March 18, 2003, a multinational coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq for the second time in less than 15 years. As casus belli, the coalition alleged Iraqi violation of the terms of the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire agreement, including the country’s duty to abide by the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In 2004, the International Survey Group (ISG)—created to locate weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq—issued a report concluding the country had no such weapons, nor any programs capable of creating them.
Prior to the release of the ISG’s findings, while the search for WMDs was ongoing, I had the definite feeling I had seen this movie before. Only it wasn’t a movie—it was the climax of Greg Bear’s 1993 science fiction novel “Anvil of Stars”, the sequel to his brilliant 1987 work “The Forge of God”.
The central plot element in both novels is variously called “Dark Forest Theory”, and “The Berserker Hypothesis”. It’s a grim solution to the Fermi Paradox, postulating that the reason we haven’t found signs of extra-terrestrial civilizations is because a rival civilization invariably wipes out any less developed civilization that becomes visible at interstellar distances. To put it simply, every other advanced species is hiding, dead—or doing (at least part of) the killing.
“The Forge of God” is a masterpiece of apocalyptic sf, in which forces wielding unbelievably destructive powers threaten Earth. The ending both upset me (because it wasn’t what I expected or wanted) and blew me away (because it was so right for Bear’s story). A poignant scene near the end, with a pair of characters looking out over Yosemite, is burned into my memory. If you haven’t read this book, please give it a chance. “The Forge of God” is one of the great works of sf written in the past fifty years.
Five years later, when Bear released “Anvil of Stars”, he didn’t outdo “The Forge of God”, but exceeded its scope. Descendants of the survivors from the first book are now on an interstellar mission, seeking the creators of the self-replicating machines that attacked Earth—which is not the only world to suffer such a fate. Technologically advanced, and apparently benevolent, aliens have given members of many victimized species the opportunity to strike back at their persecutors. Those species’ search eventually leads them to a star system they christen Leviathan, which their investigation has told them is the source of the killer machines.
When the hunters arrive, however, they find the system inhabited by many species living peacefully with one another. They detect no automated weapons of total war.
Were the killer machines created by the forebears of one of Leviathan’s current species? Have the progeny outgrown their predecessors’ xenophobia and penchant for apocalyptic destruction? Can the searchers from Earth and the other victimized civilizations judge the descendants for the sins of their ancestors?
I will not spoil the ending of this awesome and awful tale by revealing whether the hunt for the killer machines in “Anvil of Stars” ends in the same way as the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Read it, and find out for yourself.
I will tell you that each of these novels delivers a riveting tale in its own particular sf subgenera, and each will challenge you with questions about life, death, and meaning you will continue to ponder long after you finish the last page.
I never met Greg Dale Bear, who passed away on November 19 at the age of 71, in person. Unlike many, I didn’t know him through a broad sampling of his work, but only through these two books. They were enough to give me great respect for his insight into human nature, and for his skill at telling a fantastic (in multiple senses of the word) story. We have lost an sf master. May he rest in peace, and may his works continue to bless us all.